I was rushing through a department store one afternoon a few weeks ago, eager to return an item so I could finish other errands and get home from work at a reasonable time. One second I was speed-walking and the next I was sprawled on the floor with a broken shoulder. Sadly, that means I am now in a position to give you some tips for recovery after a proximal humerus fracture.
In this article, I’ll go deeper into my broken shoulder recovery tips, including:
- What to do immediately after falling
- What not to do in the Emergency Room
- How to sleep with a broken shoulder
- How long does broken shoulder pain last
NOTE – I am not a doctor and you should not take anything in this article as medical advice. This information is strictly my opinion, based on my personal experience with a broken shoulder.
What To Do Immediately After Falling
There was nothing around me and the floor wasn’t wet. I simply caught the edge of my shoe and tripped.
The second I hit the floor, I knew I’d done some damage, although I wasn’t sure if I had broken my left shoulder or simply dislocated it.
I had never had a broken bone, so I didn’t have a comparison.
Two EMT’s showed up in less than two minutes. As it happened, they had been walking into the store to get some snacks when someone saw them and pointed them in my direction.
After helping me sit up and checking me over, they (and I) felt my shoulder needed further examination.
I declined being transported, instead electing to have my husband come pick me up and take me to the ER nearer our home.
TIP #1 – Don’t Get Up
The first instinct after a fall is to try to get up, but you shouldn’t move until you at least do a mental assessment of your injuries. Trying to move too soon could be risking further injury if you don’t realize how badly you are hurt.
I knew I hadn’t hit my head (so grateful for that!). My legs and back didn’t hurt. I had fallen on my left shoulder and that really hurt.
So, I tried moving my arm slowly to see I could move it and how much pain I had. Turns out that I could not move my left arm on its own, but everything else felt normal. When they reached me, the emergency responders doubled checked again before helping me to sit up.
TIP #2 – Remove Your Rings ASAP
When you break a shoulder (or any bone), or even dislocate it, you will have a lot of swelling and bruising.
By the time I was actually seen by an ER doctor about four hours after my fall, my arm and fingers had swollen so much that I could barely take off my rings for the xrays. Combined with the swelling, the pain of an unstabilized broken bone makes it next to impossible to tug on your finger enough to take them off.
So, your best bet is to take those rings off right away. Tuck them into your purse, give them to the loved one who might be with you, or even stick them deep inside your pants pocket. Just get them off your fingers.
TIP #3 – How A Scarf Can Help
Let’s face it – bone fractures hurt. But, a proximal humeral fracture is a SUPER painful injury! By the time my husband arrived, every movement hurt my shoulder joint because the broken pieces of bone were rubbing together. Even breathing hurt.
We walked out to the car (every step hurt), I got in the car (simply moving further across the seat hurt). Each pothole, speed bump, traffic light, turn of a corner – every movement was excruciating because it made the broken humeral head shift and move.
The best thing that happened that night (besides getting a shot of pain medication) was the ER nurse who bound my arm to my side after it was placed in a sling. That simple trick kept the the shoulder in the correct position, which made the ride home far more tolerable.
I would tell you to have the person who will transport you to the ER or urgent care bring a long scarf (or tie two or three together to make a long scarf). If you have no sling yet, you can cradle your injured arm with the opposite hand and they can gently tie the scarves around your waist and over the elbow to help stabilize the movement.
TIP #4 – What Not To Do In The Emergency Room
By the time I was seen in the ER, it was more than two hours past my normal dinner time. I mentioned to the nurse that I had a granola bar in my purse that I was intending to eat but hadn’t yet (I guess shock temporarily takes away your appetite).
She immediately told me not to eat (or drink) anything until we knew the results of the xrays. This was because if I needed immediate surgical procedure to repair the fracture, I also would need an empty stomach in order to undergo anesthesia.
Thankfully, I didn’t need surgical intervention because there were no bone fragments, but If had required it, I would have had to wait until the following morning if I had eaten anything.
So, no drinking or eating in the Emergency Room UNLESS you clear it with the ER staff first!
TIP #5 – How To Sleep With A Broken Shoulder
Trust me, you are not going to want to lay flat with a broken shoulder. I still can’t lay completely flat on my bed or lay down even with just one pillow under my head 8 weeks after my fracture.
To sleep, either get a wedge pillow (pictured to the left or see it online here) or pile a couple of pillows up to make a wedge. Better yet, if you have one, sleeping in a recliner is probably the most comfortable because it helps to support the shoulder.
I’d also recommend one of those bead-filled travel pillows, even with the stacked pillows. For me, it has helped to support my neck better than just using pillows alone.
The other thing I did was fold a small towel to put under my left elbow and shoulder for support while sleeping. When you lay on your back, your shoulder naturally drops backward. The towel kept that from happening.
TIP #6 – How Long Does Broken Shoulder Pain Last?
Since I broke my shoulder, I have read that proximal humerus fractures are among the most painful ones you can have. So, the answer to how long broken shoulder pain will last will depend on the severity of the fracture, as well as your pain tolerance.
I think my tolerance is pretty high, but I was amazed that I was still in a lot of pain at four weeks. By five weeks, I had turned the proverbial corner into “tenderness” unless I did something inadvertent that bumped my upper arm bone or moved my arm too far.
Today it is 8 weeks since the fracture. I have been out of the sling entirely since Week 6.
I can do a lot more now, as long as I keep my elbow fairly close to my body. I still have to watch to be sure I am not pushing my elbow out away from my body, because that still hurts.
I have been working on stretching exercises and they are pretty painful. I’m stretching just to the point of being uncomfortable, but this still leaves my shoulder aching for several minutes after each stretch.
I’ve had good results with using a heating pad before stretching (to loosen the shoulder), followed by putting ice on my shoulder for about 15 minutes after I am done.
Broken Shoulder – Personal Care
At 8 weeks, getting dressed is still an issue in some respects. I still have to be careful about how I pull up my jeans or put on a shirt.
Initially, button-up shirts are the easiest and the ones less likely to cause further injury. They were all I could tolerate. If you don’t have your own, borrow some from your hubby or a friend, or have someone go to Goodwill or another thrift store to purchase three or four to use while healing.
Yoga pants and sweats were a great option for me (not the tight workout pants, but a more loose version). Even pajama pants will work – you don’t have to be fashion conscious right now.
Flossing will be an issue (and as a dental hygienist, I’m telling you that having a broken shoulder is NOT an excuse to not floss!). Get those pre-strung floss picks since you won’t be able to manipulate floss with both hands for awhile.
Washing your hair will also be a problem in the beginning. I used dry shampoo for the first two weeks until I felt more comfortable with being able to wash my hair in the shower with just one hand (I was worried about being off balance and slipping at first).
Get a non-slip mat for the shower and have another on the floor next to the tub or shower. The last thing you need to do is slip again while your shoulder is healing. In the first few weeks, even slipping and just sitting down hard could cause the bone to dislodge.
Applying deodorant to the armpit under the fractured shoulder is another challenge. To do this, lean forward at the waist, let your affected arm hang loose so it is away from the body, then sneak the deodorant up into your armpit.
Same goes for washing under your arm. You may need help from someone who can wash the uninjured side because you won’t be able to reach around enough with the broken arm to wash your opposite side.
For cooking – plan on prepared meals for awhile. At about three weeks into my healing, I made a yummy Mexican casserole in a 9 x 13 inch pan. Then I realized I could not lift it and also couldn’t reach far enough to put it into the oven! I would recommend using Uber Eats and Door Dash or a similar company for food or try Instacart for groceries while you are healing.
Also, have someone put plates and bowls on the counter, then use them from there (don’t keep putting them away each day). This way you aren’t reaching up into cabinets.
Same with food – try not to load up the refrigerator so you don’t have to keep reaching into the back to get things.
Broken Shoulder Physical Therapy
My doctor told me that my elbow was going to get really painful by the time I was out of the sling. This is because it wasn’t moving much, so the joint would “freeze up” during the healing process. I didn’t believe her, by man was she right! It still hurts to think about it.
Despite doing the (very) minimal arm exercises I was allowed to do in the first 6 weeks, the elbow was very stiff and sore. The pain went away very quickly once I started seeing a physical therapist and moving it more.
So, I would tell you to ask about starting physical therapy as soon as possible. You may not be able to do much at first, but this is the best way to build up your shoulder strength and get you back to normal activities quickly. Also, be sure to do your range of motion exercises at home.
One other thing – be sure to be your own advocate when you’re dealing with shoulder fractures (or any type of injury, really). If you aren’t seeing progress towards full movement within about six weeks, don’t be afraid to go back to your health care provider or orthopedic surgeon for treatment options. Don’t be like me…
I went to a physical therapist for four months and still only had achieved limited range of motion. The therapist kept telling me I was doing great, but I knew I wasn’t.
I finally stopped seeing him and went back to my doctor. She gave me a steroid injection and switched me to a different PT. The result was night and day! Within six weeks, I had made almost a full recovery of my shoulder range of motion!
I really kicked myself for not going back to get help sooner.
The National Council on Aging reports that one in four people over the age of 65 will fall each year. This is why seniors who have been told they need to use a cane or other assistive device (a walker, for example) should use it!
Breaking a bone in your senior years is traumatic and can be life-changing for older patients. In fact, every 19 minutes an older adult dies after a fall. Even when you recover from a fall, a serious injury or any type of fracture can have a lasting impact on your life.
I hope you never find yourself in the position of needing these tips, but if you do, I hope they help.
If you have had a fall that resulted in a broken a shoulder and have any tips, please let us know so we can add it to this article and others can learn from you. Thanks!
22 Ways To Prevent Falling At Home
How To Prevent Falls In The Home For Elderly – A Physical Therapist’s View